Thursday, August 11, 2011


Considering the impact that Emeril Lagasse has had on the New Orleans dining scene, Blackened Out has directed an impressively low amount of attention to the food at his three restaurants in the city. And by "an impressively low amount" I mean "none."

Have we locals shunned one of our homegrown talents simply because it's become vogue to hate on TV stars who "aren't real chefs"? Nevermind that Emeril started at the bottom, built his empire from nothing, and was one of the forerunners of the Food Network before pinky rings ruled the world. (For more discussion on this topic, read this.) But I hardly ever hear anyone recommend - much less talk about - any of Emeril's restaurants. And I spend a lot of time talking with people about restaurants.

The rub on NOLA has always been that it's training ground for the next generation of Emeril employees. As the story goes, the multi-level, atriumesque restaurant on St. Louis Street is where new recipes are tested and where cooks and managers make their bones. But every dish and every general manager has to start somewhere, so why not here?

The focus of the downstairs dining room is the wood burning oven, from which comes the above pictured duck confit and fried egg pizza, whose soft, bready crust has the texture of naan. The same dough is used to bake pocket bread drizzled with garlic oil and showered with grated parm. The most well known starter at NOLA is Miss Hay's stuffed chicken wings, and rightfully so. A trio of chicken wings are deboned, stuffed with ground ground pork and green onions, and then deep fried. Legend has it that when Miss Hay makes her yearly pilgrimage back to Vietnam, the restaurant is without wings for 4 weeks.

An interesting addition to the regular menu this summer is the "On the Road" daily specials, which feature ingredients from local purveyors. Two weeks ago, the salad course was a tangle arugula scattered with a dice of roasted beets from Covey Rise Farms and nubs of goat cheese from Belle Ecorce in St. Martinville. In the appetizer round, soft, pillow-like gnocchi were matched with a sautee of crawfish tails and woodsy mushrooms that was unfortunately too greasy.

Entree choices include enough bells and whistles to excite (maybe one too many on each dish) but are not so far out of reach as to alienate picky eaters. Hickory-roasted duck pulled easily off the bone, but the caveman pork chop had been left on the grill for about 45 seconds too long. The accompanying brown sugar glazed sweet potatoes were the standout component of the latter dish; a shining beacon of hope in the face of mashed sweet potatoes which bring back haunting memories of the sugar buster days. A filet mignon (above) looks and sounds impressive with a pile of melting Maytag blue cheese and crown of fried shallots, but the quality of the beef itself was disappointing. I would have opted instead for the ribeye with patatas bravas and chimichurri, but what The Folk Singer wants The Folk Singer gets.

My favorite seat in the restaurant is at the food bar in front of the wood burning oven, where one can watch the loaves of pocket bread rise before your very eyes. This station also produces my favorite entree - the garlic crusted drum served atop a mixture of brabant potatoes and haricot verts in a pool of lemony sauce rouge. There is one problem with sitting at the food bar though: You are forced to watch the chef heap ungodly amounts of compound butter atop each filet of fish that goes in the oven. Now in my defense, I did not notice this cooking method until after I had placed my order. But once I did, it was like I could watch myself getting fatter in the reflection of the mountain of butter melting away with each flicker of the flame. But my God does that fish taste good.

In order to avoid a coronary, I passed up dessert on my last meal here. But I have had success with warm ooey gooey cake (which is chocolate), drunken monkey ice cream, and peanut butter cheesecake. On the other hand, a pecan pie with the shape and consistency of a cylindrical brownie was overcooked and dry around the edges.

Granted, the food at NOLA is neither avant garde nor as well executed as some of the other restaurants in the city at this price point. The waiters may not be brushed up on the wine list (which, by the way, is extensive and has a few hidden values if you look long enough), but each one has always been wearing a smile and keeps my bread plate full with jalapeno cornbread and onion focaccia. Like the waitstaff, the crowd tends to the younger side, which makes for a livelier dining room.

Call me crazy, I actually like the place.

NOLA Restaurant - Par/Birdie
534 St. Louis Street
Dinner 7 Days; Lunch: Thur-Sun


willifred said...

NOLA burned its bridge with me a long time ago, nothing to do with the food....but....If that was my only choice, I'll eat at home

Anonymous said...

good story, dude.